Thursday, January 28, 2010

Weekday Dinner - Leftover Makeover

On Monday night I made one of my favorite guilt-free comfort food recipes - Turkey Meatloaf. The first time I made this recipe, I thought there was no way it would all hold together, but I was wrong. Magically that gooey glob bakes up to a flavorful and compact little meatloaf. The problem is, it just makes too much for two people.

So I had a half-loaf sitting in the fridge that needed to have something done with it. (Leftovers are not my friend. I just don't like eating the same thing day after day. And there is nothing more disgusting than microwaved meat)

I stared at the tupperware container for a minute, then inspiration struck and I got cookin'. I took the leftover meatloaf and broke it down with a wooden spoon in a skillet. I let is sizzle for a minute and then added a splash of some Barbera d'Asti (which then paired wonderfully with the completed dish) and some tomato sauce I had left over from making pizzas last week. Mixed it all around and had what resembled a Bolognese sauce. I then prepared a pot of cheesy polenta (I used 1% milk instead of water)and scooped the turkey Bolognese sauce over it. It was delicious. So delicious, in fact, that I forgot to even snap a picture of it before it was all gone.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Lesser Known American Wine Regions #1 - Hawaii

Two years ago when I was in Hawaii, standing in the middle of a vineyard growing out of lava rock, I formulated a personal goal to visit at least one winery in each one of America's 50 great states.  I figured if I could find a winery in Hawaii, I could find one anywhere.  At the time I thought Alaska could prove to be a challenge, but after some research I was thrilled to discover that the only challenge would be getting all the way up there!  Today there are over 6000 wineries in the U.S. and at least one winery in every single state, many of which actually grow and utilize local grapes.  So all I have to do is get to them!

So here is the first (of what will hopefully be over 50) lesser-known wine region recap:

Volcano Winery

Volcano, HI
Date Visited: 09.13.07
American Viticultural Area (AVA): None
Grapes Grown: Symphony

My husband and I were fortunate to visit Hawaii together as part of an insurance conference he was invited to attend on Oahu. I got to play tag-along and spend my days sun-bathing and sightseeing (rough, I know) while he sat in conference rooms and listened to insurance seminars (which, he claims were fascinating, but that's why he does what he does and I do what I do).  We decided that once the conference was over we would take a puddle-jumper to the Big Island and stay at an e-friend's B&B so we could do some sightseeing together.  After some extensive Googling, I found all sorts of things that I wanted to see in the short three days we would be there. (And somehow we managed to do them all!)

Many people on travel websites mentioned how interesting Volcano Winery was to visit and how nice the staff was.  That said to me 'fun touristy place with wines not worth mentioning'.  But I was wrong.  It just turns out that the winery is just so beautiful and their staff is just so super-friendly that people forget to mention the wines, which is a shame really.  Located less than an hour away from Volcanoes National Park (though less than 10 miles away as-the-crow-flies), this winery is virtually in the middle of nowhere. After a fun and scenic drive, we parked our rental car in their parking lot, which is nestled just beside their grapevines, and strolled into their immaculate tasting room.  We were greeted with a friendly "Aloha!" when we walked in the door and given a basic run-down of their wines by the tasting room manager.

Volcano winery prides themselves on wine made from the Symphony grape, as well as blends made with exotic, locally-grown fruits.  We sampled the Volcano Blush & Volcano Red (blends of wine with jaboticaba berries), the Symphony Dry, and Macadamia Nut Honey Wine.  The Symphony Dry reminded me a lot of Gewurztraminer, but with the floral notes of some Torrontes wines.  It was a little too perfumed for my tastes, but a fascinating wine nonetheless.  We ended up liking the Volcano Blush the most, which was odd, as I have been accused of turning my nose up in snobbery when it comes to fruit wine and blush wine.  Maybe in this case two wrongs made a right? --Yeah, let's go with that. (But I'll admit, I am starting to come around on the whole blush and fruit wine thing.  Not all of them are pure evil, as I used to believe.)

So if you are ever on the Big Island of Hawaii, be sure to stop by the Volcano Winery for a glass or two before you head of to the steam vents and lava flows of Volcanoes National Park.  It is well worth the drive to see grapevines growing in such unusual conditions and to taste a couple fruit and blush wines that are actually a welcome refreshment with all that humidity and sunshine!

Monday, January 11, 2010

Undercover Wine Geek

I love to visit wine shops and restaurants.  Most of the time, I am able to sneak in undetected and get what I need. Sometimes, though, I stop to help out some lost customer that appears to be invisible to the employees.  "Oh, do you work here?" they usually ask me when I offer my help. "Nope, just your friendly, undercover wine geek," I reply with my hands on my waist a la Wonder Woman.  Oh, the eyebrow-lifts I've seen after that.  But usually, once the confusion wears off, the eyebrows lower and the floodgates open, pouring out all sorts of wine questions. (It is amazing how many people won't ask questions about wine unless they are approached. Perhaps a sign that wine professionals are still too intimidating?)

Now, I want to encourage everyone to ask questions, but also keep in mind that the answers you get may not be 100% accurate all of the time.  Most of the time it isn't even intentional.  Not everyone that is a "wine professional" knows all there is to know about wine - heck, I barely know everything there is to know!  Just check the 'facts' you get and learn your personal preferences and you'll be better equipped to sift through all the little (red & white) wine lies that are out there.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Expanding your Wine Horizons in 2010

Last year, the the Wall Street Journal's now-no-more wine writers, Dorothy & John, created a list of 20 things you should do in 2009 to expand your wine horizons.  This year, they added 6 more (21-26).  I don't know if I could have written a better list, myself, but I did tack on a couple extras (27-30).  How many are you going to attempt this year?
  1. Try a Wine From a Different Country
  2. Go to a Wine Bar and Have a Flight of Wine
  3. Order the Cheapest Wine on a Restaurant's Wine List
  4. Open a Sparkler at Home for No Reason at All (I am a firm believer in drinking Bubbly whenever possible!)
  5. Take Notes on a Fine Wine From Beginning to End
  6. Have a Sauternes
  7. Have a Blind Tasting
  8. Organize Your Labels
  9. Visit the Closest Winery to Your Home (I amazed by how many people tell me they live within an hour of a winery and have never even visited it)
  10. Attend a Winemaker's Dinner at a Restaurant
  11. Have Fun With Stemware
  12. Find a New Wine Store
  13. Try a Varietal You've Never Had From a U.S. Winery
  14. Either: Have 12 Different Bottles in the House at Once Or: Drink Up (If you are the average American and don't have more than a couple bottles of wine in your house at a time, go buy a mixed case.  You'll find it comes in handy when you have company or have the craving for a glass of wine.  But if you already have a cellar going, make it a point to drink some!)
  15. Go Crazy on a Wine Pairing for Dinner Some Night (Let me know if you want some help with this one!)
  16. Try an Older White
  17. Try a Type of Wine You Think You Don't Like (This one is great.  There are so many styles out there for each varietal, that there is likely one for you.  Hate Chardonnay? Try one that is unoaked.)
  18. Get a New Corkscrew
  19. Serve a Dessert Wine to Guests
  20. Shatter Your Price Limit
  21. Try wine from a different state. (If you can find something from somewhere other than CA, WA, OR  try that.  There is good wine being produced in nearly every state these days!)
  22. Next time you are making a special meal, go to two good wine shops and ask them to match the main course with a wine in a certain price range. (Love this mini-'smackdown' challenge.)
  23. Take a wine trip. 
  24. Truly engage a sommelier at a fine restaurant. (I love when people would ask me questions and seem like they genuinely wanted to know more about wine, my job, etc. Often, I would give them a little taste of something different, if they were really cool.)
  25. Do a little research on a wine before or after you drink it.
  26. Go to a mass tasting.
  27. Take a bottle to a restaurant and pay their corkage fee.  (Grab that bottle you've been saving for a "special occasion" and take it with you to your favorite restaurant.  Be sure to offer the sommelier/server a taste - they'll really appreciate it, so long as there isn't a policy against it.)
  28.  Go to a wine shop, give the owner/manager/employee a price range, and tell them to "just pick something". (You'll probably get a reply along the lines of "Oh, I don't know where to start" or "Well, what do you usually drink?", but just tell them you want to try something new and that you are totally in their hands.)
  29. Enjoy wine outside.  (Take a bottle with you on a picnic, BBQ, or camping trip.  I just love how wine tastes with fresh-air.)
  30. Drink Rosé! (Too many people think that pink wine is for sissies, but dry rosé is one of the best food-friendly wine styles out there.)

Monday, January 4, 2010

Making Dollars and Sense of Wine

Just what is the difference between a $10 bottle and a $100 bottle of wine?  The obvious and common answer is "quality", but there is just so much more to it than that.  Thing is, there's so much that goes into producing a bottle of fermented grape juice, most of which most people don't even think of when they're drinking the stuff.

1. Land: The grapes have to grow somewhere and most premier vineyard sites aren't cheap!  Cabernet grown in Bordeaux, France is going to cost far more than Cabernet grown in the boondocks of Washington state because vineyard land is far more prestigious and costly in Bordeaux.  Also when it comes to land, winemakers can chose to use grapes from a single isolated region or a blend of grapes from a larger area (ex.Napa vs. California). When wines are made from a blend of a larger region, they are typically cheaper due to the fact that some of the grapes are coming from cheaper growing areas.

2. Labor: Just like we learned in our Econ 101 classes, labor is a big cost contributor.  Someone needs to plant, care for, and pick the grapes.  And then someone else needs to turn those grapes into wine and get them into bottles.  Some cheaper wines are produced in more automated fashions that use harvesting machines, gyropalates, and robotic bottling/labeling lines.

3. Aging: Typically, the longer a wine is aged (whether it be in barrel, tank or bottle) at the winery, the more it is going to cost.  Merlot that has seen 18 months in oak, is going to cost more than a Merlot that was 'oak chipped' for a few weeks.  Oak barrels are costly and so is the space in the winery that they take up.  Wines that are "cellar aged" in the bottle before release will cost more because the winery has reserved a lot of space in their cellar to let those bottles just sit and take up valuable real estate. 

4. Supplies: Just like your car had all sorts of add-on options when you bought it, bottles can be tricked out or stripped down.  It still boggles my mind how many different types of glass, corks/closures, labels, boxes/crates and wax/foil options there are. You can engrave/emboss your bottle, get longer and more expensive corks with your logo "firebranded" on it, use heavier glass, package them in wood crates, or even hand-dip (+1 labor) the neck of your bottle in wax to make it extra fancy.  The sky's the limit and so is the cost you can incur.

5. Marketing: Some wineries are now part of mega-corporations like LVMH that believe wine should be advertised in every form of media possible and should be treated as a mass-marketed (and produced) product.  No small boutique winery is going to want (or be able to afford) to buy up TV time or huge magazine ads.  They look at their wine as an artistic expression, not a profit-driving commodity.  All those catchy Korbel commercials aren't cheap and you can be sure that advertising cost was figured into the cost of your that bottle of Brut you're eyeing.

6. Prestige/Scores: Veuve Cliquot, Opus One, Petrus, Silver Oak...are they really worth it?  Some say they are the best wines on the Earth and others think it is mostly hype (I vote for hype).  A lot of time and effort (+1 Marketing) and money go into building up a reputation - these brands have done just that and they make sure to charge you for it. You can also bet that once a wine gets a high score from Parker, Spectator, or Tanzer it won't be a "value" for long.

7. Certifications: Biodynamic and Organic certifications don't come cheap to a vineyard/winery.  The fees to get certified and the effort and supplies needed to do it come at a premium. So just like an organic carrot might set you back more than its mainstream counterpart, organic/biodynamic wines are going to cost you more, too - but some say the extra cost is worth it, both in produce and in wine.

Now, what you need to do is determine what factors are most important to you and buy your wine based on that. Do you think it is worth the extra few $$ to get a wine that is handmade or are you fine with mass-produced wines?  Are you an organic food/wine devotee?  Do you like wines that have pretty labels or fancy bottles that would make great mantle-pieces?  Do you view wine as a status symbol and only want to be seen drinking the fanciest of wines?  Once you figure out where your wine dollars are best spent, you will begin to get more out of your wine.